Listen With Others

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3962 – Disappearance by Phi – Setter’s Blog

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 Jan 2008


There isn’t much in the mechanics of this puzzle that needs particular – or even any – explication. What’s interesting about this one – for me, at least – is the voyage from original idea to final implementation.
The puzzle, as such, goes back 10 or more years. We’ve been members of RSPB (and, here in NZ, the Royal Forest and Bird Society) for a good long time, long enough to discover the IUCN Red List. (I can’t quite see how, even in French, IUCN equates to World Conservation Union, but apparently it does.) That’s the list of endangered species, and there are subsets for each country. For a long time I had the UK list stashed on a handheld, and was toying with clueing RAREBIT, entering RARE, clueing STERNUM, entering SUM – and lo, the BITTERN, in danger of disappearing, actually does so.

The curious thing about this is that I can remember the diagram I had in mind. Those of you who owned the original AZ book of crosswords may remember the contribution from Ozymandias (Azed himself, as it happened) – a 12×12 grid effectively consisting of nine 4×4 grids, which were linked by virtue of some entries being 8 letters long. I have a feeling that my intention was to lose a bird (it was always going to be based on birds, not anything else endangered) in each 4×4 square plus an extra letter, the extra letters spelling THE RED LIST. And yes, I do notice that there are 9 4×4 squares and 10 letters capitalised just there – this may be why I was beached.
The other odd thing about this memory is that it is very strongly linked with a Mike Rich puzzle – but refuses to adduce any further details about the puzzle in question. Can anyone help out? The one scrap of memory that I have suggests that Mike used a grid very like Ozymandias’ but it refuses to clarify further.
Anyway – fast forward ten years and half the world. I’m in Auckland Museum looking at huia feathers. The bird became extinct as a result of the Duke of Edinburgh (no, not the current one) whose 1905 visit prompted a good deal of Maori ceremonial wear, in which huia feathers featured prominently. The bird was hunted to extinction, its last definite appearance being in December 1907. That rang the anniversary bell, and the fact that the phrase ‘Huia today, gone tomorrow’ leapt into my mind led to the puzzle following, more-or-less fully-formed. (I did consider none tomorrow – which, to be frank, is actually what first occurred to me – but I thought two amendments might be too much.)
The only real addition was the inclusion of the unchecked pair of endangered birds – the plight of the kakapo is reasonably well known, while that of the kokako is not so familiar. I was slightly spooked when they declared the South Island kokako extinct (none seen for 60 years) in January 2007, as I was writing the last few clues. The North Island version is merely almost extinct.
I also wanted 1 across to be thematic in some way. The Cox and Rathvon puzzles in the Atlantic Monthly (sadly now only available with an online subscription, and I can’t quite bring myself to subscribe almost solely for the puzzle, which is easy by Listener standards, but generally an inspiring gem of technical ability) – sorry, that was rather a long parenthesis, I’ll start again: The Cox and Rathvon puzzles in the Atlantic Monthly regularly had a first clue that referred to the theme, and often the title. Well, I’d ended up with WITNESS-STAND – splendid for having a triple S in the grid, but not otherwise extinct bird-related. I was rather pleased when the clue turned out to have an abandoned nest in it.
I did also consider adding a pair of 6-letter answers – OTHER ECHOES – for my own thematic satisfaction. (You wouldn’t have been expected to highlight them!) One of the poignant facts about the huia is that, while it is extinct, its song lives on. Several expeditions were mounted to track one – or several – down in the years after 1907. A young Maori from the 1915 expedition went into a recording studio as an old man some decades later, and recorded his imitative call of the huia, which he’d been employed to use. It’s a sad little set of notes – a little upward run, followed by a drop to the starting note. The NZ composer Eve de Castro-Robinson took that recording, transcribed it for violin, and used it as a main theme in a ‘fanfare’ called Other Echoes. (The other main birdsong she uses is the South Island kokako.) The music takes the form of the bird-calls being slowly swamped by an unrelenting crescendo representing modern life, before that recedes and the huia’s call leads the music to silence. It works absurdly and touchingly well.

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